Friday, October 07, 2011

Offensive success is possible at Target Field

Much like Festivus on Seinfeld, the conclusion of the Twins season always brings forth the “airing of the grievances” – most of them center on the big ballpark downtown.
This year, Delmon Young, fresh off of punishing the Yankees, took time to explain his recent outburst (6-for-19 with 3 HRs including the game-winner in Game 3) and why he underperformed in the season’s first-half. According to Young:
“Target Field changed my whole field of hitting. I usually tried to use the middle of the field, and if I pulled, I pulled, and if I went the other way, I went the other way.
At Target Field, when those balls turn into can-of-corn outs and I was fighting for playing time over there, I couldn’t afford to have a flyout to deep right field. I had to try to pull the ball to get a base hit.”
This is not the first time Young sounded off about his former team’s configurations. Last year, Young groused about the same issues, telling reporters that if he tried to hit the ball to left or left-center the ball would die.
When you review the 2011 home run hit chart by right-handed batters at Target Field, you will notice that Young was absolutely correct in his observation:
Just three balls were hit by right-handed batters that cleared the fence to the opposite field and another five to center field. Comparatively, in 2009 the Metrodome had 20 home runs by right-handed bats which went out to right and center fields. Clearly, if you are going to have right-handed power in Minneapolis, it needs to be as a pull hitter.
Reviewing his batted ball splits, it is no small wonder that Young suffered at Target Field and felt the need to turn on the ball. In the past two seasons, Young has held the lowest line drive rate to the middle of the field (14.1%) among qualified hitters. While he was successful at sneaking those grounders back through the box, plenty of his fly balls were likely stood up in center field. 
JJ Hardy, who struggled offensively at Target Field, last year hitting .252/.313/.340, had told reporters in the spring following his trade to the Orioles that in 2010 he was trying to “stay on top of the ball and go the other way more.” The Orioles hitting instructor took one look at this approach and said – to paraphrase – “aw HELL no.” In Jim Presley’s eyes, Hardy was a power-hitting shortstop, one that he witnessed first-hand while coaching in Florida and Hardy was crushing for the Brewers. So Hardy made some adjustments and began turning on pitches ferociously. The end results would make any Twins fan sick to their stomachs as the castoff shortstop popped off for 30 home runs and a .491 slugging percentage. 
Would simply having Hardy pull the ball more have paid off for the Twins? It is hard to say but this method does not always bear fruit at Target Field as Danny Valencia proved.
When Valencia put up his impressive rookie numbers in 2010, he had demonstrated that he was able use the big part of the field – hitting line drives to center at a 22.5% clip. This aided him at home where he hit .386/.418/.561. This year, Valencia was called out by his manager for trying to “swing for the fences” and abandoning the technique that had him producing well. Valencia wound up pulling the ball more and hitting line drives to center at a significantly lower clip (15%). He ended up hitting more home runs at home (9) but hit .257/ .307/.400 at Target Field overall. In this instance, focusing on pulling the ball was an obvious detriment to his game.
Young is far from the only Twin to make this observation about the right field region. Justin Morneau made a fairly public spectacle by ranting about the fencing to the Star Tribune almost immediately after the Twins were bounced from the playoffs a year ago. When he returned to action this season following his concussion, part of his issue at the plate was that he was pulling off on the ball with his front hip. Although I attributed it to rust back in May, perhaps this was an ill-fated attempt to try to yank the ball down the line more where lefties have had more home run success.
Jason Kubel said that he changed his approach in 2010 too, attempting to pull the ball down the line but ultimately wound up going back to his previous method when all he had to show for it was a few extra home runs. This season, he said he worked on hitting more line drives (which he did to some extend) and this resulted in more doubles rather than the long fly outs in the fly-killing power alleys. Through his first 102 plate appearances he was hitting .351/.392/.511 with nine doubles to just two home runs but then his numbers leveled off as he started to elevate more fly balls for long outs:
"That's why when I started out this year, I was more contact-oriented, focusing on hitting line drives all over the place. It was working out. But now I'm starting to get balls in the air, and I've hit 'em good. But they're outs. So it's tough. I'm not as big or as strong as Jim Thome; I can't just do that."
Kubel’s first two months of the season showed that the key to having success is simply keeping the ball on a rope. Now, as an impending free agent, there is a strong chance that he will not be with the team in 2012 and once again, the Twins will have to have someone new decipher how to hit in this ballpark.
What does this mean for the Twins and their offseason shopping list?
If the Twins are looking for power this offseason that needs to come in the form of hitters who have shown pop as pull hitters but mostly have had success using the middle of the field. As we have seen the past two seasons, players who have a tendency to drive fly balls to the power alleys and deep center are likely going to be demoralized for 81 games a year. Target Field can reward dead-pull hitters or those who hit line drives to the middle of the park (one of the reasons Valencia had strong numbers in ’10).
One such free agent that may fit that bill is Derrek Lee. True, in his first foray into the American League he appeared overmatched when hitting .246/.302/.404 in 364 plate appearances in Baltimore. However, his second-half with Pittsburgh was fairly strong. Plus, he exemplifies the attributes that just might play well at home: Dating back to 2009, Lee has the sixth-highest line drive rate up the middle (22.9%). 
Another name on the free agent list that may be intriguing is Magglio Ordonez. While he has suffered a rash of injuries and is aging quickly, he showed life at the end of the season as he hit .385/.397/.477 in his final 19 games. Similar to Lee, Ordonez has a high line drive rate in the middle of the field (22.6%) since 2009.
Most teams target players whose skill set will play to their home-field advantage. The Red Sox gave Adrian Gonzalez a butt-ton of money because of his ability to drive the ball the other way. As a left-handed hitter, this meant that he could punch double-after-double off of the Green Monster. The Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson who they felt would perform well with the extremely short porch in right field. The Twins should recognize that their home field advantage – while not as performance-enhancing as Boston or New York’s – is the spacious center field. By targeting up-the-middle, line drive hitters the Twins will position themselves well to combat opposing teams who remain flustered by the home stadium’s frustrating effects.